Memorial park opens one year after sludge torrent wiped out Western Hungarian village
A memorial park to commemorate the victims of the toxic sludge disaster which hit the region a year ago today opened in the western Hungarian village of Kolontar on Tuesday.
Interior Minister Sandor Pinter told a gathering of a few hundred people that the government had fulfilled all its post-disaster pledges and national solidarity had prevailed in the rescue operations. The disaster-struck areas and the surrounding environment had been rebuilt, and the victims had moved into newly built houses within a year of the deadly torrent's devastation, he said.
Handing over several awards, Pinter thanked the officers, civilians, aid organisations and medical staff who participated in rescue operations.
Representatives of the government, the rescue operators and local mayors laid wreaths at the memorial.
Pinter insisted, however, that the incident had not been a natural disaster but the outcome of human negligence.
Karoly Kontrat, state secretary of the Interior Ministry, called for the culprits of the disaster to be identified and punished, insisting that the tragedy had been the result of "unbridled money-grubbing and human negligence."
Currently 15 former or present employees of Mal Zrt are suspected of negligence in connection with the Ajka-based alumina plant, whose sludge reservoir burst on October 4, 2010, causing the death of ten people and making hundreds homeless.
Janos Ader, an MEP of the ruling Fidesz party, said that the European Parliament's environmental committee had approved his Tuesday proposal to call on the EU to prepare recommendations on stricter control on protection against industrial accidents involving hazardous materials.
"This is a great step forward; integrating the international system on indentifying and classifying hazardous waste and updating the Seveso directives [on the major accident hazards of certain industrial activities] to more clearly reflect the threats against human health and the environment," Ader said in a statement sent to MTI.
Ombudsman Mate Szabo told MTI in a statement that his investigation into the disaster response found that the Hungarian Army had responded rapidly and adequately last October. At the same time it was cause for concern that the defence unit in Szekesfehervar, central Hungary, had been understaffed, he said, adding that further steps were necessary to guarantee the technical and professional background for handling similar situations in the future.
HUNGARY'S WORST ECOLOGICAL DISASTER
The industrial accident is seen by many as Hungary's worst ecological disaster as more than one million cubic metres of red sludge had flooded the area, completely destroying 358 homes in Devecser, Kolontar and Somlovasarhely. Many of those who came in contact with the highly alkaline substance suffered severe burns, 120 people needing hospital care after the flood.
The flood wiped out wildlife in the local Torna and Marcal rivers, but timely action prevented the pollution from reaching the Danube.
National efforts to mitigate consequences of the disaster and provide help to families staying at temporary shelters started immediately.
Huge efforts were made to remove the sludge from homes, gardens and fields around the three localities. The farm ministry announced in July 2011 that the area had been cleared from contamination.
In December 2010, a dam between nearby localities and reservoirs in the industrial area was completed to ensure protection from similar disasters.
By July 2011, the government built two housing estates with 112 new homes in Devecser and Kolontar, and those families that chose to move to another part of the country received compensation for their lost homes.
Over 700 people suffered material damage in the disaster, and a total of 35 billion forints (EUR 118m) from the central budget have been spent on compensations and reconstruction.
After the disaster, the government temporarily closed the alumina company thought responsible for the spill. As part of government control, a commissioner in charge of further operations was appointed. Mal head Zoltan Bakonyi was detained on October 11 but was released from custody two days later. Production at the plant was resumed later in October, with the opening of a new reservoir for the sludge. In February 2011, Mal introduced a dry technology of its alumina production. An investigation into the exact causes of the accident is still under way.
Donations collected in a special fund set up to mitigate the damage amounted to over two billion forints (EUR 6.7m) in September 2011. About a quarter of the funds has now been allocated to the three affected municipalities for communal purposes.
Zoltan Gogos, a lawmaker of the main opposition Socialist party, told a press conference on Tuesday that the government should give an account of how it spent the disaster relief aid collected from private sources and from state funds. He said the Socialists were calling for an ad-hoc inspection committee to be set up for this purpose, as there are several questions, for instance regarding reconstruction-related procurements, that should be cleared up.
Gogos added that operations at Mal Zrt, the alumina plant which caused the accident last October, should not be halted, as it was the biggest employer in the region.
Lajos Kepli, a deputy of the radical nationalist Jobbik party, said in a statement that his party resented that the commemorations were not in honour of the victims but were merely "another marketing stunt of the (ruling) Fidesz party" and that awards were being handed out to "undeserving people".
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